Comparisons of China’s commitment to the environment and “clean tech” to our own are popular these days, including in the comments threads on this blog. Shikha Dalmia, fresh off a trip there, offers some very interesting observations about the problems with the Chinese brand of greening.
While much of China does appear cleaner than expected, Dalmia writes:
None of this should come as a huge surprise, although it is contrary to the thinking of Western environmentalists for whom economic growth equals environmental havoc. The reality is that, as economies advance, their environment naturally improves. Rising productivity reflects an ability to extract more from less, something that automatically leads to resource optimization.
Indeed, thanks to technological advances and rising energy efficiency, China at the turn of this decade had three times better resource utilization than in 1978. This is not to deny that modernization and growth can generate new forms of pollution. But these are less injurious that the old. And as people get wealthier, they invest more in environmental improvements — trees, pollution-control technologies, more expensive but cleaner-burning fuels. It is no coincidence that richer economies are also by and large cleaner — and that as China’s economy gets richer it also gets cleaner.
But the problem is that authoritarian governments have a well-known tendency to pursue status and legitimacy through massive public building projects. They build grand monuments, skyscrapers, or space programs. China does all of this but has added something new to the annals of autocracy: showy environmental projects. Call it prestige environmentalism. Beijing’s remarkable metamorphosis is the clearest example of that.
This kind of environmentalism has major dangers. For starters, there is no upper limit to the ambition of an elite unencumbered by cost-benefit considerations. The official price tag for the Beijing Olympics was $44 billion — the highest in the history of the Games — three times greater than what Athens spent for the 2004 Olympics and twice what London plans to spend on the 2012 Olympics.
England has already declared it cannot justify to its taxpayers during hard economic times anything on the grand scale of China’s investment. Likewise, China has pumped in somewhere between $45 billion and $80 billion for the current world’s fair, the Shanghai Expo, while the U.S. couldn’t even get Congress to authorize $60 million for its truly pathetic — or, as one of our Chinese hosts euphemistically put it, “simple” — pavilion.
But the bigger danger of prestige environmentalism, Chinese-style, is that it favors visible, important areas that help showcase the country over the invisible, unimportant ones that don’t, thereby distorting the allocation of environmental resources from where they are most needed to where they draw the most attention. Authorities reportedly diverted 80 billion gallons of water — equal to the annual consumption of Tucson, Arizona — to Beijing for the Games from nearby provinces, some of which had to reportedly shut down factories and stop farming. This is remarkable for a country in which some areas face chronic water shortages and lack access to clean drinking water.
Likewise, to deliver on promised air pollution targets for the Games, China employed resources that might have been better used to, say, build sewers in rural areas. Instead it engaged in a massive beautification program for Beijing — planting millions of trees, not to mention mounds and mounds of gorgeous roses — to stop the wind that brings dust and pollution from the plains. It also went after polluting factories and power plants, the main cause of Beijing’s bad air. But no one in China really could tell us what exactly happened to those factories. Some said they had been permanently shut down, others said they were relocated. If they were relocated, does it mean they are polluting elsewhere? And shutting them down couldn’t have been good for the workers if they had to return to their villages, where they would be exposed to far worse traditional forms of pollution, such as poor sanitation and bad indoor air from burning coal and wood.
Read the whole thing.